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Is Sri Lanka's painful history going to repeat?

President proclaims advances on post-civil war justice, but critics bemoan tardiness and obstruction
Is Sri Lanka's painful history going to repeat?

A women holds a image of her family member who disappeared during the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam at a silent protest to commemorate the international day of the disappeared in Colombo in this 2016 file photo. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi /AFP)

Published: October 23, 2018 08:23 AM GMT
Updated: October 23, 2018 08:30 AM GMT

It is time for the international community to accept that Sri Lanka has made genuine progress in addressing bitter legacy issues of the nation's 1983-2009 civil war and not unduly interfere in reconciliation efforts.

This is the argument being mounted by the island nation's President Maithripala Sirisena, not least recently before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

During a general debate Sept. 25, Sirisena cited progress in Sri Lanka during the past three and a half years to strengthen parliamentary democracy, independence of the judiciary and media freedom.

Further, the president pointed to efforts to protect human rights and achieve economic prosperity.

The process of reconciliation should continue without undue "foreign influence" as Sri Lankans could find solutions to their own problems.

"We simply need room to resolve them and the support of the United Nations," Sirisena said.

"The international community should look upon Sri Lanka from a fresh perspective as it is different today."

A unity government seeking justice, including for the families of those who disappeared during the civil conflict between the majority-Buddhist security forces and ethnic-Tamil insurgents, has racked up some successes.

However, critics continue to raise a lack of resolution to various killings and abductions, including of journalists.

Suspects are mostly from the security forces and there have been claims of unwarranted meddling in investigations by top brass who come under the purview of the president.

In one recent incident, the Criminal Investigations Department was planning to remand the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Rear Admiral Ravindra Wijegunawardena, for allegedly aiding a naval officer suspected of involvement in the abduction and killing of 11 youths.

There was an alleged attempt to send Wijegunawardena abroad to block his arrest; anyway, the remanding of the CDS was prevented.

An amendment to Sri Lanka's Constitution, which reduces the executive power of the president and strengthens parliament, ranks among success stories.

Moreover, journalists generally no longer have to fear being abducted or killed over their reporting.

The new Counter Terrorism Act, that has been hailed for its checks and balances, was approved by cabinet and parliament to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act impinging on suspects' rights.

The establishment of an office for dealing with the payment of reparations was recently approved by parliament.

And an Office of Missing Persons has begun consultations and institutional capacity building to fulfil its mandate to investigate tens of thousands of civil war related disappearances.

Progressive moves, such as this one, have given the people of Sri Lanka breathing space to express opinions on the consolidation of democracy.

Conditions have improved considerably, but there is still much to be done.

At the 39th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on Sept. 10 said that Sri Lanka's government had moved too slowly on its transitional justice agenda.

Rajavarothium Sampanthan, a Tamil politician and opposition leader, cited the government's request for a two-year delay in implementing provisions of the UNHRC's resolution on Sri Lanka.

And he expressed concern over undue delay in matters pertaining to the promised Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.

Sampanthan said that Tamil people wanted a genuine power-sharing arrangement in the north and east of the county through a new charter for a united Sri Lanka.

This was necessary to ensure transitional justice mechanisms for accountability, truth seeking and reparations to come to effect.

Following consultations in the parliament, an interim report by the steering committee of the Constitutional Assembly was published and debated, but so far, no final draft has been produced.

Former president Mahinda Rajapakse, now firmly ensconced in the opposition camp, said this failure threatened to divide the country.

Most of the Buddhist clergy — and even Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith —  reject the proposed charter change.

Critics argue that the government's reform agenda has stalled.

But others note that Rajapakse did not previously listen to the international community in relation to calls for war time accountability.

The change of government in January 2015 averted possible international sanctions over Rajapakse's failure to adequately deal with war crimes. 

Is that painful history going to be repeated?                                                           

The government's new stance on the co-sponsored UNHRC human resolution will be known to the international community either during the council's next review meeting Nov. 5- 16 or at a session in early 2019.

The president and prime minister need to work together even though they belong to different political parties.

Without a shared commitment to the national interest, there is little hope of reform.

Furthermore, the unity government has only until March 2019 to fulfil commitments given to the international community through the key UNHRC resolution.

Also, the president's term is due to end on Jan. 9, 2020, and there may be an opportunity to call a presidential election a year or more earlier.

Kingsley Karunaratne is administrative secretary of the Rule of Law Forum, which is affiliated to the Asian Human Rights Commission. His organization works for a fundamental redesigning of justice institutions to protect and promote human rights.

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